As South Africans prepare to register this weekend to vote in the local government elections, the Independent Electoral Commission has numbers that tell us more about South Africa than almost any other data since the last election. At that stage the numbers told us what we thought as a nation. Now they’re telling us that our youngsters don’t seem to care to think at all. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
The IEC is going on a massive registration drive this weekend. While in a perfect world, they would like every South African to register and then to vote, that’s not going to happen. And the figures are showing that their world is becoming less and less perfect. In a sentence, here it is: Only 11.4% of 18 and 19 year olds are currently registered to vote, of those aged 20 to 29, 53.7% are voters and 93% of those older than 30 are registered.
The headline figure, of course, is for the youngsters – out of 2.1 million people only 238 500 are registered. But there is a practical reason, in that these people couldn’t vote in the last elections, and thus probably haven’t bothered to register since. So for them, and for the IEC, this weekend matters. For us the really important figure is actually for those who could have voted in the previous elections, but simply didn’t bother.
For a start, there are the usual reasons. In most established democracies, the older you are, the more likely you are to vote. This is beginning to hold true for us as well. It’s evidence that we are becoming a normal democracy, whatever that may be. It’s proof that people are becoming used to democracy, are comfortable with it, and are generally satisfied with things.
But South Africa is different. We had apartheid, something extraordinary. So that difference should play out in our statistics. In 1994 it did. The history of post-colonial Africa tells us that the longer and harder the fight for freedom, the higher the poll at that country’s first election. Countries that went through liberation wars – Zimbabwe being a good example – had most of their populations voting in their first elections. We were no different. And the 93% registration figure for those over 30 bears this out, these were people who could and probably did vote in the 90s.
Unfortunately, there’s a flip side to the apathy of those who aren’t registered. That they’ve simply given up and won’t bother to vote. That they think there’s no point, there’s no chance of their lives changing. This points to a loss of hope. And that’s dangerous, because these people now have nothing left to lose. The fact that they’re in their stone-throwing youth makes it even more worrying.
For them, apartheid is also just something their parents talk about, even though it still defines their day-to-day existence. This means that for a party to simply appeal to them on the basis of “The Struggle” is not a workable strategy. In other words, the ANC is not enticing these people to vote. That could matter hugely in a few years’ time.
So if the IEC is in the business of telling us what we think, what are the implications for this year’s elections if so many of us just aren’t thinking at all?
Generally speaking, the poorer you are, the more government affects your life. If you’re rich, you use government services less. So you would think that the poorer people here are more likely to vote. That’s probably still true, and our history would normally have made this more so. However, there is a chance of a small “perfect storm” brewing. Because at the moment mlungu’s seem to be more pissed off than usual. In fact, it seems to us that there is more anti-ANC sentiment on the ground, in all communities, than there ever has been. There’s a combination of anger at service delivery problems in poorer communities plus fury from the middle-classes at their roads, and dare we mention, their power bills. While the poorer (yes, we do mean black, we are still a nation where your identity pretty much determines your politics) communities are likely to just stay away, the whites are likely to make sure they register, just to make damn sure the billing system is fixed.
All of this means that instead of the ANC just not getting votes, the DA may be scoring twice. Well kind of. Don’t get too excited, the ANC will probably still win five of the six metros, but there could be significant shifts. And no, we’re not going to predict (yet) where those will be.
It’s difficult to know if the IEC’s figures should fill us with sadness or joy. On one level it’s easy to be frustrated. A country that went through the most bitter upheavals because of a completely inhumane and morally wrong system doesn’t care enough to go through a five minute registration process to make sure nothing like it ever happens again. On the other hand, isn’t this what people fought for, to make sure that their children didn’t have to concentrate on politics, that they could just live a normal life free of worry and fear of the jackboots breaking down their doors at 4:00. Either way, one thing is certainly true. We are very far down the road to becoming another, better, country. DM
Grootes is an EWN reporter.
"Man is by nature a political animal" ~ Aristotle